Whether you’re concerned about your parents’ alcohol consumption, distressed by a friend’s drug use, or evaluating your own substance use, you are not alone. It takes strength for older adults to confront the impact of drug or alcohol use on their health and relationships, but with support and treatment they can take control and get on a path toward recovery.
Stacia Murphy, former president of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, shares her story of recovery.Close
Everyone’s experience with aging is unique, but many older adults and seniors face similar challenges. Increased use of drugs or alcohol may seem like a way to relieve stress, dull pain, or forget problems, but over time, substance misuse only diminishes health and well-being.
Many people dream of a relaxing retirement for years, but in reality, transitioning from a standard workday to an unstructured week can be a stressful life change. It can be difficult filling the time, finding a sense of purpose, keeping up social ties, and living on a smaller budget. Faced with these challenges, some people increase their reliance on drugs and alcohol to cope. In fact, boredom after retirement is one of the many reasons for alcohol abuse among older adults.
According to the National Association of Chronic Disease Directors, about 20 percent of older adults experience mental health challenges. Some experiences that are common later in life — like losing a loved one — can trigger mental health problems even in people who haven’t had them before. Seniors that have survived traumatic events, such as sexual assault, can also experience symptoms of mental health conditions like depression and PTSD.
In addition, neurological conditions that primarily affect older people — such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease — can cause memory loss, confusion, and a decline in judgment and motor skills, among other challenges. When family members or friends have trouble coping with these diseases, or if their cognitive disorders go undiagnosed or untreated, they may turn to drugs or alcohol to mask symptoms like anxiety, loneliness, sadness, and frustration.
As people age, they are more likely to experience injury, illness, disability, and other health problems. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, from 2008 to 2012, nearly 40 percent of adults over age 65 reported having a disability. Illness and disability can be frustrating, exhausting, and painful, and increased drug use or drinking may seem like easy ways to manage those effects.
Many older adults take medications to manage health problems. It can be difficult to keep track of the dosages and frequency of doses for prescription or over-the-counter drugs when taking several at once. Also, some doctors may overprescribe medications for older patients. Some drugs can become dangerous when mixed with alcohol or other medications and result in overdoses, emergency hospital visits, and other complications.
Many older people drink occasionally, and as people age, they are more likely to take medications to relieve the symptoms of physical or mental conditions. So, it can be difficult to tell when someone’s drinking or drug use has become a problem. Whether you’re dealing with a parent who drinks heavily, worried that your spouse or friend might be misusing drugs, or concerned about your own substance use, recognizing drug or alcohol abuse in older adults is the first step toward recovery. If you’re worried about older adults you know, encourage them to seek treatment.
No one needs to deal with drug or alcohol problems alone. Substance abuse prevention specialists, counseling centers, and other mental health resources offer support and treatment. Additional resources can help people overcome transportation, financial, and other barriers to seeking help.
The NIHSeniorHealth website can be a valuable source of information about health problems associated with substance use that seniors might face. The site includes quizzes about substance misuse, information about related health problems, and videos with tips for healthy living.
This website helps Medicare beneficiaries learn how to use their insurance to support the recovery process, explains how to work with a doctor to make a treatment plan, and provides definitions of the legal terms in Medicare policies.
AARP’s Life Reimagined website offers resources to help older adults manage their mental health, relationships, and careers.